Australian director Garth Davis couldn't have asked for a better response to his debut feature film 'Lion' back in 2016. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and acclaimed by critics and audiences around the world, the inspirational drama seemed to announce Davis as a major new talent after working in television, at one point in collaboration with Jane Campion on 'Top of the Lake'. Unfortunately, his second feature, 'Mary Magdalene' (2018), received a far more tepid response from critics and was caught in a distribution nightmare with the collapse of The Weinstein Company. While still handsomely made, 'Mary Magdalene' felt confused and dour, chained down by an indulgent central performance and failing to develop its many interesting ideas.
In the wake of that film's failure, Davis now releases his third feature, 'Foe', based on the 2018 novel by Iain Reid. It feels unfair to judge any filmmaker too harshly this early in their career, especially when their debut feature was as significant a hit as 'Lion'. At the very least, one can commend Davis on choosing difficult and fascinating material, and his reputation is clearly strong enough to attract two of the most beloved contemporary actors for his latest film. Unfortunately, while 'Foe' is a much stronger film than 'Mary Magdalene', it still suffers many of the same problems, all the more frustrating when its various pieces suggest the better film it could have been.
Set in the near future when the climate crisis has begun to leave large sections of the planet ravaged by extreme weather, 'Foe' focuses in on Hen (Saoirse Ronan, 'Lady Bird') and her husband Junior (Paul Mescal, 'Aftersun'), living on Junior's family farm despite the gruelling conditions. Hen can feel her marriage falling apart, Junior becoming more distant and resentful, leaving her feeling trapped and cripplingly isolated. That is, until Terrance (Aaron Pierre, 'The Underground Railroad') knocks on their door, informing them that Junior has been selected to work on a major infrastructure project building a habitable space station in the earth's atmosphere. This shifts something in Hen and Junior's relationship, and in the intervening time waiting for what happens next, they begin to fall in love with one another again, making the prospect of their separation even harder. Terrance may have a solution to this problem though - his company will replace Junior with a temporary duplicate, a synthetic human created as a perfect imitation of him. In order to do so, Terrance begins to dismantle their relationship bit by bit, digging deeper into the fractures and connections holding Hen and Junior together.
Co-written by Davis and Reid, 'Foe' is a deceptively ambitious film, posing many uncomfortable questions around the ethics of artificial intelligence and the complications of human relationships. At its best, the science fiction setup acts as a metaphor for the slow collapse of a relationship, that feeling of inevitability that something has been lost between partners and the desperate attempt to hold it all together. The certainty of Junior's departure could be read as the two caught in an act of delusion, holding back the dam before it bursts and swallows them, with Terrance as the physicalisation of their ever-growing distance. There are moments in 'Foe' where this metaphor is at its strongest, and as a consequence, the film finds moments of power and devastation that almost sweep you fully into its current. However, these are impeded by the confusion of its plot, something neither the screenplay nor Davis' direction are able to gain control of.
Though less than two hours, 'Foe' at times feels interminably long, giving the sense of the film spinning its wheels between plot events with increasingly inexplicable and confusing scenes of unfinished sentences and ill-expressed emotions. The feeling I had through so much of this film was that something was missing, that parts of the story were not so much being denied to us as much as the storytellers forgetting to put them in. Revelations in the third act seem to think they're filling those gaps, but they instead extenuate this feeling even further. I certainly wanted to invest in the film, intrigued by its premise and dazzled by a number of its attributes, but there simply wasn't enough there to grab on to, enough places to sink my teeth into.
It's all the more frustrating when there's quite a lot to admire about it. Mátyás Erdély's cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, imbuing the landscape with the same sadness and confusion as the lead characters. Though the film is set in the midwest of the United States it was filmed in Victoria - and to Erdély's credit, he finds ways to shoot the Australian landscape with a fresh perspective. There's also much to love in the production design, both Patrice Vermette's prediction design and Alice Babidge's costumes. So much is communicated about Hen and Junior by their house and what they wear, the weight of generations that weighs down on Junior's shoulders and the encroaching weathered walls that hold Hen in. There's a tremendous amount of detail in these spaces and these garments, in some ways tell us so much more than the dialogue and in far more eloquent ways.
Despite the confusion of Davis' direction and the emotional opacity of the screenplay, Ronan and Mescal still manage to turn in strong performances, the latter especially. We've seen Saoirse Ronan relegated to these kinds of parts quite a bit of late, that of the neglected and isolated spouse yearning for more, but she adds a venom to Hen, a sense of a coil tightly wound and ready to snap. It's still a relatively underdeveloped character, but Ronan's natural brilliance helps to make up for some of these shortfalls. Paul Mescal however delivers the best performance of the film: a tortured, textured and ultimately devastating portrait of a man coming apart at the seams. As the film goes on, you realise the mammoth task placed in Mescal's hands, and within the film's flimsy parameters, he still manages to burrow right into the heart of Junior's confusion and pain. This certainly isn't the best we've seen Mescal, but the bar he has set is so damn high at this point that, even in this film, he still manages to outrun almost every contemporary he has. Watching 'Foe', I seriously began to question whether he might just be the finest male actor working today. I honestly do not know how he does what he does. In his strongest moments, he's just so goddamn dazzling.
This certainly isn't the best we've seen Mescal, but the bar he has set is so damn high at this point that, even in this film, he still manages to outrun almost every contemporary he has. Watching 'Foe', I seriously began to question whether he might just be the finest male actor working today.
For the most part, Aaron Pierre is able to hold his own with Ronan and Mescal, and whatever faults there are ultimately in Terrance's character arc are not the fault of Pierre. In the first act of the film, he brings a quiet, controlled, almost deceptively pleasant menace to his performance. You can immediately sense that something else is hiding under the surface of this film, Terrance's role in the film to anchor the sci-fi premise within its romantic drama reality. Unfortunately, the flaws in the writing and the direction affect Terrance the most, and as the film becomes more esoteric, you can feel Pierre struggling to bring the pieces together. What begins as a fascinating character becomes a frustrating obstacle without a clear objective for us to interpret his actions through, adding to the building frustration of a film threatening to jump the tracks. All this means though is that another film will need to build on the promise Pierre showed in 'The Underground Railroad' and give him material worthy of his talents.
As 'Foe' trundles towards its final act, filling itself with incongruities that make increasingly less sense, you begin to hope that it will all start to come together in the end. To its credit, the revelation towards the end of the film does almost do just that, more than anything thanks to Paul Mescal, and the thematic ideas that have been bubbling away at the heart of the film fully reveal themselves. They aren't the most original conceits, but they certainly don't feel unearned, and their execution is perhaps the most affecting moment in the film. The problem is, just at the moment where the film should leave you to ponder its metaphor and its themes, it pushes forward to an ending that brings even more confusion, particularly to its world-building and its premise. What you're left with instead are not questions to ponder about its meaning but more frustrating questions about the mechanics of its plot, doing an astonishing disservice to the elements of the film that had worked so well.
And this inevitably leaves you with one of my biggest gripes I can have about a film - I don't know what it was trying to say. What exactly do Davis and Reid want me to be thinking about as I leave the cinema? Surely not the faults in their storytelling, but those same faults impede any kind of thematic clarity. The relationship metaphor is strong, and the commentary on AI has some potency, but the final moments of the film confuse me as to what I should be taking from either of these and what future these characters may have. Yes, they're entirely fictional and in a high-concept situation, but imagining their future allows us to imagine ourselves in their situations, question how we might respond or how we might be affected by such choices. It's possible that with a more confident directorial hand, 'Foe' could have been a much sharper, much clearer and much more affecting film. All the pieces are certainly there to make it work - a terrific cast, a talented creative team and an intriguing central premise - but the whole thing seems to be beyond Davis' skills to bring it all together as a cohesive whole. It certainly looks great, has plenty of strong atmosphere and elicits strong performances, but so did his previous films, and while that was enough to cover over the problems in 'Lion', it wasn't enough for 'Mary Magdalene' and it isn't enough for 'Foe'. I so badly wanted to be on board with this film, but with each successive act, it falls further and further apart. There's a great film hidden in here, but as it stands, 'Foe' gets too lost in the wilderness to find its way.